Predicting the Return of ‘The Final Frontier’

It’s not often that a regulatory policy analyst correctly predicts a pop culture development a decade out, so…

Back in the spring of 2005, law professor Christopher Yoo (then at Vanderbilt, now at Penn) argued in Regulation that the Federal Communications Commission should liberalize its “structural regulations”—controls on such things as how the broadcast spectrum can be used, cable TV rates, ownership of different media outlets in a geograpic market, etc. He explained that those controls limit the diversity of voices and programming in mass media, making it mainstream-directed, because such programming is most profitable under those rules.

About the time his article appeared, the now-defunct UPN Network announced its cancellation of the series Star Trek: Enterprise, the most recent TV installment of the Star Trek franchise. The reason was low ratings; Trek fans are fervant and typically middle to upper class, but they were not a big enough market segment for UPN and its desired advertisers. However, those characteristics made the fans an ideal market for a paying-subscriber-supported Star Trek—something that Yoo’s reforms would have allowed, but FCC regulations prohibit.

Seeing the news hook, Yoo and I wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner explaining all this and concluding

Hopefully, if the “Star Trek” series gets yet another revival, it will be in a mass communications environment where niche shows have a better chance to live long and prosper.

Unfortunately, the FCC hasn’t adopted the reforms we envisioned (if anything, going in the opposite direction). But human innovation—both in technology and business—often finds ways around government barriers.

This week, the CBS Network announced that a new Star Trek series will launch in January 2017, exclusively on CBS’s Internet-delivered subscriber service All Access. The move will attempt to do exactly what Yoo and I foresaw: tap the Trek fanbase to see if it is a viable market for the show.

It can’t be said that CBS is boldly going where no one has gone before. Cable and satellite services, premium channels like HBO and Starz, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix have already entered the final frontier of subscriber-supported content, delivering high-quality but niche-audience new programming such as original series Game of Thrones and House of Cards, reboots like Battlestar Galactica, and network-cancelled series like The Mindy Project. They can do this, in part, because they can escape many of the FCC’s diversity-dampening regulations—for now at least. 

Unfortunately, the FCC hovers as menacingly as a Romulan starship, as evidenced by the recently adopted net neutrality regulations. Still, let’s hope that CBS’s new venture lives long and prospers.